During the fourth week of Auburn's 2014 campaign, the defending SEC champions will travel to Manhattan, Kansas, for a Thursday night showdown with the Big 12's Kansas State.
The September 18 matchup will be the second half of a massively delayed home-and-home series between the two schools. Seven years after a 23-13 comeback victory against the Wildcats in Auburn, the Tigers will finally pay a return visit to "The Little Apple."
In the time between the two Auburn vs. Kansas State matchups, the school from the SEC has taken a page from Kansas State's longtime blueprint for success by signing some of the nation's top junior college players.
Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder, the man whose name adorns the stadium Auburn will visit, built a program that went to 11 straight bowl games from 1993-2003 by picking up talent from the impressive junior college football factory in the Wildcats' home state. Snyder turned once-overlooked JUCO recruits into All-Americans in Manhattan and started a recruiting revolution.
"The guy has been one of the greatest head coaches in college football history, and he's shown it can work with junior college players," Garden City (Kansas) Community College head coach Matt Miller told ESPN.com last October. "If you're a program that's not in Texas, California or Florida, it absolutely makes sense to take a long look at recruiting junior college players."
Auburn was one of those programs, and it started to take a longer look at junior college players during Gene Chizik's four-year tenure on the Plains. The two best players from his 2010 BCS National Championship team, quarterback Cam Newton and defensive tackle Nick Fairley, were junior college recruits.
Although some of Auburn's gambles from the JUCO ranks turned into national award-winning talent while wearing the orange and blue, the Tigers did not sign a large number of transfers before their last coaching change.
From 2006-2012, under head coaches Tommy Tuberville and Gene Chizik, Auburn only signed 16 junior college players. Kansas State signed 70.
In the time since Gus Malzahn took over the program in December 2012 after Chizik's 3-9 campaign, Auburn has signed 12 junior college players.
However, after signing the first six in the class of 2013, a group that included eventual starting quarterback Nick Marshall, running back Cameron Artis-Payne and defensive tackle Ben Bradley, Malzahn said signing a large number of junior college athletes was not in his plan for the future:
"We had some needs that we had to address. This will not be the norm. I am not saying we will not recruit junior colleges every year, but I felt like we had to address some needs, and we had to have some players that we feel like are physically ready to play next year, so that was the plan."
But one year later, Malzahn returned to the podium on national signing day after signing another large crop of JUCO talent:
"Anytime you go junior college, you think about filling an immediate need. Sometimes it’s to start; sometimes it’s just depth. So after you evaluate from year to year, you have to fill in the pieces. We really feel like we got some guys that can help us immediately—if not start, they will at least give us some depth."
Malzahn's comments during this year's signing day reflected Auburn's dual nature when it came to junior college players.
Some, like former SEC players Newton and Marshall, were signed to battle for a starting job from day one. The two dual-threat quarterbacks, who went to national title games in their first seasons at Auburn, went on to make an instant impact in the fall.
Auburn coaches hope to see that this fall out of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College products Derrick Moncrief and D'haquille "Duke" Williams. Moncrief started at safety for Auburn's first-team unit at A-Day, while Williams emerged as a go-to target in the passing game, which struggled at times last season.
Even with the pressure to be another instant impact for a program that has signed several future stars from junior college, former No. 1 recruit Williams stood out to his coaches in spring practice and at the annual A-Day Game.
"Duke's done a really good job with buying into the way we're going to practice," Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said earlier this year. "A lot of times you get new guys, especially from junior college, they come in and they're not used to practicing like we practice."
But there are other Auburn players who sign out of junior college to provide depth and become starters down the road.
Fairley went that route before becoming a Lombardi Award winner in 2010.
Although they did not start for the Tigers, Artis-Payne and Bradley each played key roles in 2013 for a team that had struggled with depth in seasons past. Fellow transfer Kenny Flowers became a standout player at A-Day, winning Defensive MVP for his work at linebacker.
This season, transfer Xavier Dampeer will most likely be an experienced backup for four-year starter Reese Dismukes at center. Cornerback Joseph Turner will bring a bigger presence to Auburn's growing secondary, and defensive linemen DaVonte Lambert and Devaroe Lawrence look to play a part in a heavily rotating front four.
"We think all these guys are talented enough to help," Malzahn said. "Anytime you’re talking depth, special teams, all those things are important. That’s the way we recruit. We’re going to recruit guys that we think that can come in and make an impact right off the bat."
That mindset in junior college recruiting is showing no signs of slowing down for the class of 2015.
Auburn currently has commitments from No. 1 overall recruit—and former high school signee—Jovon Robinson, No. 1 athlete Jason Smith and No. 1 cornerback Tony Bridges. The Tigers are also in the mix for No. 2 recruit Marquavius Lewis and No. 3 overall recruit D.J. Jones, who are both defensive linemen.
Now, with a mix of instant playmakers, depth-minded role players and high-caliber recruits from junior college, Auburn will head to the mecca of JUCO football for an important nonconference battle in its fight for a spot in the first College Football Playoff.
Snyder's Kansas State squad will face a star dual-threat quarterback from one of Kansas' best JUCO teams—Nick Marshall, who the Wildcats fought hard to sign last year.
"I tried about 300 times to get him to go [to Kansas State]," Miller, a KSU alum, told the Kansas City Star last December. "But he’s an SEC guy. K-State was facing an uphill battle."
And this September, against a defending SEC championship squad with a distinct JUCO flavor, Kansas State will probably face another uphill battle.
Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports.
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